Toronto Theatre Review: 'The Last Ship' (2019)
My dream of seeing my musical hero on stage for the first time has finally come true.
It had been almost two years since I wrote a theatre review as a critic for The Theatre Reader before the magazine was discontinued, and I'd been truly missing those near-regular theatre going days. As soon as I found out the cast of The Last Ship would be performing at the Princess of Wales Theatre from February 9 until March 24 (fun fact, through a subway ad), I naturally leaped at the opportunity to relive my thespian musing process.
Since it was announced in 2011 that Sting would be working on the eponymous musical, I had been hoping it would eventually make its way to my city, Toronto. Sting is my favourite musician, and I thought it would be interesting to hear his influence in theatre music as well as observing his acting chops.
Although I highly appreciate what he has done for commercial radio all these years, I nevertheless didn't want to allow any favouritism to cloud my critical faculties regarding the quality of this production. As a result, I avoided all press releases and reviews between my immediate ticket purchase and performance day. I'm glad I did, because while there can certainly be opportunities for further workshopping, I ultimately wasn't disappointed with what is both a personal project for the musician and a relatively original idea in dramatic storytelling as a whole.
The Last Ship sails us back in time to 1986 in Northern England where ship yarders fear losing their livelihoods after management reveals their plan to destroy the overly expensive ship they are currently building. Meanwhile, foreman Jackie (Sting) is suffering from health issues and sailor Gideon (Oliver Savile) tries to reconcile with estranged girlfriend Meg (Frances McNamee), and newly discovered daughter Ellen (Sophie Reid) after serving the navy for 17 years.
If it weren't for these two subplots, the union politics would've gotten boring very quickly for the average theatre-goer. Unlike what some reviewers have said, I felt that the relationships between Gideon, Meg, and Ellen served as a symbolic parallel to the plot's message. While it is important to be wary of risks, you must have faith in your decision to actively pursue a goal or to allow for voices to be heard (and this well executed idea applies to all human experiences). I was especially moved by McNamee's no-nonsense attitude toward Savile and her portrayal of a mother who clearly tries hard to be strong in such a troubled period for her daughter.
Savile's singing voice fondly reminded me of actor Roger Bart's, possessing an air of heroism and adrenaline.
Sting and Jackie Morrison as Peggy, his character's wife, manage to be both passionate and gentle-spirited at the same time, earning their places as respected leaders among the cast. I liked how Sting's condition gradually became more noticeable over time, and the "will he or won't he die" question definitely added some heavy drama to an already heavy story.
The flaws I noticed with this production could be mostly chalked up to technical easy fixes. Many of the actors, especially Sting, didn't always articulate their lines nor project their voices, though I'd blame Seb Frost's audio before them in terms of the latter. It's a shame, as Sting's lyrics did a great job providing insight into the characters' struggles, and his always beautiful and versatile music ranged from forcefully political to hauntingly mystical. However, the choreography definitely needed to be tightened in the ensemble segments, save for the lovely tango bits.
I will admit that the first half could have been paced more coherently, as the show introduces too many songs back-to-back and takes its time transitioning into the plot, though the longer second half generally makes up for this. Musicals are structured differently than plays and partially rely on their musical compositions for character development and story progression, but an imbalance can cause narrative fatigue, which almost happened here.
As for the visuals, 59 Productions truly outdid themselves with their amalgamation of vividly animated projections—a lot of it being reminiscent of the aesthetic movement at the time—and set dressing inspired by both punk and marine design elements. Immersion definitely shouldn't have been an issue for the audience.
If you're a theatre-goer in Toronto and want to get a tiny glimpse into British history, give this one a shot. There's a lot of substance to engage with, albeit several parts you may have to patiently sit through.